Sunday, April 02, 2006

Music of black origin

Jim Noir: Tower Of Love
(My Dad, 2006)

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to write about music. This is a little disturbing, because I've been doing it 'seriously', whether for payment or not, for over 10 years. (It was a Mojo review of a Pet Shop Boys B-sides compilation in 1995, since you ask. Included 'Your Funny Uncle', which remains my favourite PSBs track. Nice hologram cover too. Think I made about 22 quid.)

You see, writing about pop music is a constant challenge to your critical vocabulary. If you're writing about classical music or jazz, you can usually assume a certain level of musical knowledge on the part of your reader. They'll know what a minor key or a blue note is; if you tell them that something sounds like Haydn or Coltrane, they'll get the rough idea.

The problem with pop - the beauty of pop - is that you can't make these assumptions. Pop can speak to the intellect, but it has to connect with other organs first. It's about instincts and gut feeling. The clarion calls of pop work because they're devoid of coherent meaning: doo-lang doo-lang; gabba gabba hey; awopbopaloobop. Yes, of course you need to communicate what a record sounds like; but that's not the whole story. What's important is not what the music is; it's what it's about. Sweaty grinding on the dance floor? Moody gazing at the bedroom ceiling? Screaming till stray brain tissue backs up in your sinuses? That'll be pop. So the vocabulary is limited to how it feels (which presupposes some kind of empathy between critic and reader) and what other music it sounds like (which presupposes the contents of their iPods overlap at least a little bit).

I need to snap out of this. I'm currently discussing a big new music book project (c. 90,000 words) that will, if it comes off, tie me up for the rest of the year. And I'm partly flattered, partly relishing the chance to go head to head with my pop crit role models, like Morley and Hoskyns; and a whole lot of terrified. (And then there's the side of me - firmly encouraged by Small Boo - that asks if it isn't time I jacked it all in and got myself a real job and a pension and stuff. It's when the thought of teacher training sounds sensible that I want to go and hide under the mattress.)

What I liked about the NME in the olden days, when the above-named gentlemen, and Penman and CSM and Edwin Pouncey and Mat Snow and so on were in the arena, was that they took for granted a certain level of knowledge. If they said that something sounded like Bowie or Love or Lee 'Scratch' Perry or the Velvet Underground or Fela Kuti, the ball was in your court. Go and find out what the buggers sounded like, or suffer in silence. To be honest, lots of us cheated, working out what Can or Captain Beefheart sounded like by listening to The Fall and joining the critical dots. But, to look at the NME now, ver kids don't have to indulge in that level of intellectual effort and/or critical dishonesty.

Oh, bollocks. So, Jim Noir. One-man band, bedsit job. Yes, it sounds like the Beach Boys. Not the big, fat Wrecking Crew sound of 'Darling' or 'Heroes and Villains'; more like those weird little crannies of Brian's monophonic mind. Think 'Vegetables', but Jim crunches his own celery. And there's something loungey about it. Perhaps a few tinges of Neil Hannon, in his less smug moments? The title track is Percy Faith's 'Theme from A Summer Place' after one too many pints of Beamish, surely. Think Badly Drawn Boy, if he'd listened to the Lovin' Spoonful more than Bruce Springsteen. Something churchy about the keyboards. And throw the Kinks in as well. I don't know why, just a sort of deadpan Englishness. And Small Boo's getting into the Kinks. On the other hand, she's just bought a new guitar, and is playing 'Smoke On The Water' to try to drown out our weird next-door neighbour and his Ministry of Sound mixes.

Note that I haven't given you any hyperlinks here. You're on your own. Like Jim Noir. And like I was when I read about the Velvet Underground 23 years ago.

P.S. Go and see Inside Man. Excellent fun. Yeah, so it's just The Usual Suspects meets Dog Day Afternoon; but you say that like it's a bad thing.

P.P.S. There's been an election here today. I'm sorry I haven't really covered it. Several reasons: I doubt if many of you really care much; I never feel entirely qualified to discuss the minutiae of Thai life (it's that old post-colonial guilt thing, even though, as the locals never tire of telling you, the place was never colonised - just don't mention WW2, OK?); and when we get to the point where the ruling party is alleged to have paid smaller parties to run against its own candidates, there's little more that I can add. Do I need to repeat Tom Lehrer's line about Kissinger getting the Nobel Prize? Another time, perhaps. But while we're at it, should I be writing more about Thai stuff? Would that float anybody's canoe? Or would you like more of the touchy-feely domestic stuff, about my darling significant other playing metal classics in the spare room? (This is market research of the blunt-instrument variety, you'll notice.) Just don't ask me to write about Thai pop music. Most of it's rank.

The guy above is Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, by the way. I don't know what the chicken died of.


starbender said...

It wasn't bird flu, was it? :o
Seriously, I can tell U have been doing this 4 quite some time~U are very good at it. Your words seem 2 flow. I enjoyed the read!

Spinsterella said...

I wouldn't mind hearing a bit of what's going on in Thailand now and again. I've been there lots of times, back when I was a professional backpacker.

Are there still mangy dogs everywhere?

Is the food still fantastic?

Tim Footman said...

OK, Spinny, you'll get occasional bulletins, especially food and dogs (but not the two together, unless you go up to the North-East, near the Laos border. I was thinking of doing something on my favourite cafe in BKK anyway, even though it's not Thai. Sorry.

As for mangy dogs, everyone PLEASE go here and, if you can, bung 'em a few quid through PayPal.

patroclus said...

I want to like Jim Noir, because he's got a song called Computer Song, which is quite amusing. But as I am irrationally prejudiced against the entire corpus of current British indie music (with the exception of the Shortwave Set and Camera Obscura), I don't.

If anyone can help me out of this tiresome and contrary attitude, I'd be most grateful.

Tim Footman said...

I don't mind Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs; they both have something of that Pulpesque camp swagger. But as for the likes of the Arctic Monkeys or the Ordinary Boys.... Eeeewwwww.

How do you define indie, btw? Are Morrissey and Radiohead still indie? Do Belle & Sebastian count? Stereolab? Super Furries? Or aren't they current enough?

I must admit, I find myself more and more likely to snuggle down with some elderly 60s soul compilations. Or even classical. Help. Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony, anyone?

Oh, and starbender, belated thanks for your kind words. Always nice to be appreciated.

Robert A. Swipe said...


What's the 90,000 word book about?

I think we're long overdue a Roger Whitaker reassessment, personally and I think you could be just the man for the job. Rog. satnds head and shoulders above the trite, brittle pygmies of Nouveau Brit Pop. Can Frank Ferdinand match the swooping existential terror of Skye Boat Song? Or the taut Andalusian chiarascuro that is San Miguel? Would Kaiser Chiefs have the sheer audacity to tackle the delirious quasi-psychedelia of "Hair" stalwart, Good Morning Starshine?? Or Durham Town, Whitaker's stark reassesment of the post-war zeitgeist in which all he's ever loved - like any sense of hope or optimism for a better future - is "leaving......leaving leaving leaving leaving me....."

Come on Tim, give the world what it needs!!!!

You know it makes sense...

Love on ya,


Tim Footman said...

Sadly I can't tell you until various T's and I's have been crossed and dotted, preferably in that order.

I think the Roger Whitaker thing would be a welcome addition to pop culture academe, Bob. But, tell you what, why don't you do it?

And I'll stick to my groupies 'n' crack expose of the after-show parties of the King's Singers.


Forget I said that.

Robert A. Swipe said...


First Morrissey and now you Tim??

What IS the world coming too?

(Where's the Morrissey lp review I've been expecting all week???)

Love on ya,


Tim Footman said...

Sorry, after those kegs exploded between my legs i've been too busy having Savlon applied to my tenderest regions (Joanne Whalley style) by Nit and Noo, the twin Thai nurses with giggles more infectious than bird flu and more annoying than the men who try to sell you soft-porn DVDs on Silom Road.

No, back on planet Earth, Bob, the album hasn't been released here yet, so my copy's being shipped over from dear old Blighty in its own personalised ten-ton truck. Should be imminent. And I'm too much of an old fuddy-duddy to be downloading it off of the interweb. I get my banging choons on wax cylinders, each authenticated by a pawprint from Nipper.